This week, Anne looks at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “A Private Experience,” in order to study the short story and what makes it tick. This 2008 short story of just over 4000 words was originally published in The Guardian, and is available to read online for free.
Content Warning: “A Private Experience” contains some graphic descriptions of warlike violence.
Because of the flashback and flash forward narrative device in this story, there are almost two plots. The present story—that is, what happens in the present tense rather than the future tense, goes like this:
- BEGINNING HOOK: When violent rioting breaks out between Muslims and Christians in the Nigerian town they are visiting, wealthy Christian Igbo sisters Chika and Nnedi are separated. Chika must decide whether to keep looking for Nnedi, or take refuge with a poor but savvy Muslim woman inside an abandoned shop. She climbs in through the shop’s window with the woman, who prepares to wait out the violence.
- MIDDLE BUILD 1: Chika tells the woman that she is a medical student in Lagos, and the woman, an onion vendor, asks for medical advice about a problem with her breasts, and Chika invents an answer to cover her inexperience, assuming the woman isn’t intelligent enough to notice. But when the woman catches it, Chika tries to bond with her by pretending that they are more similar than they are.
- MIDPOINT SHIFT is when the noise in the street dies down.
- MIDDLE BUILD 2: The rioting seems die down and Chika proposes they leave, but when the woman warns her that it’s too soon, Chika decides to ignore the woman’s experience, and climbs out the window. She comes upon a freshly burned body, realizes the rioting is far from over, and injures her leg rushing back to the shop. The woman binds up her leg wound with her scarf, and they spend the night waiting for peace to return.
- ENDING PAYOFF: After a sleepless night of nightmares, morning brings a restoration of order. When the woman announces that it’s safe for them to leave the store. Chika must choose whether to return her scarf and indicate that all connection between them is at an end, or keep it and maintain a symbolic connection. She asks to keep it, and the woman agrees. They exchange wishes that each will find her missing loved one, and the woman climbs out the shop window.
What’s the Genre?
Back in Season Three we analyzed the film Inception, and I noted that an accurate description of its story spine left out almost all the really cool stuff that made that movie so fascinating. Something similar happens here. What is not revealed in the story spine that I just read is everything the narrator reveals in what I’m calling flash forwards.
There are nine of them, and eight of them start with the word “Later.” “Later she will read…” and “Later she will learn…” and “Later she will see…” Each one of these flash-forwards reveals the true horror and tragedy of the event that drives Chika to hide all night in an abandoned shop with a stranger from a different class, ethnic group, and religion. We learn horrifying details about the cause of the rioting. We also get that shattering moment that Leslie has mentioned in our other short story episodes: that Chika’s sister Nnedi and the woman’s daughter Halima will both die that day.
So what’s the genre here? The murder and mayhem in the streets seems to be more important than the small actions inside the little abandoned store, but they aren’t what the story is about. The narrator lets us know about them while maintaining the fiction that the protagonist doesn’t know them in the story’s present. Later, she will know.
And that signals Worldview. From naivete to sophistication or from ignorance to wisdom—these are the value shifts that happen to Chika. The day and night she spends in the store with the woman are the fulcrum of her life, the moment between her old status quo and naive beliefs, and the adult world of loss, sorrow, and wisdom. If a good short story focuses on one of the five commandments, I would say that “A Private Experience” is a turning point story.
I’ve done a beat by beat breakdown of the story, and I’ll link to that in the notes.
The Principle – Anne: A Short Story with Elbow Room
Adichie delivers the strong story spine with great skill both in her choice of narrative device, which Leslie’s going to talk about, and her choice of details. It can’t be said too often: if you’re going to fit your story into just over 4000 words, every one of those words needs to count.
First a note on the title. Titles are always important, but never more so than in a short story. Though within the text, the private experience mentioned is the Muslim woman’s attending to her prayers. But of course it’s Chika’s own private experience of cognitive dissonance and worldview shift that the story is really about. The whole experience inside the little store is something she—the narrator—is equally uncomfortable sharing with the world, but she’s Catholic and believes in confession, and I think that’s why she’s telling it.
On to the text itself. A dozen small details, from Chika’s Statue of Liberty T-shirt and her Burberry bag, from her auntie’s big government job and private driver, to her being in medical school, reveal her social standing.
But what’s more important are the words Chika—or the narrator—chooses for her observation of the woman. She uses the word “threadbare” twice, and describes the woman’s scarf as having “the garish prettiness of cheap things” and her smell as “something harsh and clean like the bar soap their housegirl uses to wash the bed linen.”
All these choices convey the judgmental, prejudiced, unexamined worldview of the sheltered rich girl. And yet from the opening scene it’s clear that the woman, for all her broken English and poverty, has saved Chika’s life with her superior knowledge of the world.
But as I was reading this story and comparing it to the others we’ve studied this season, I felt that somehow Adichie had given herself more elbow room than either Liz Gilbert’s “Pilgrims” or Hemenway’s “Wolves of Karelia” had. The story seemed almost as big to me as Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which was actually more than twice as long.
How did she do that?
Mary Robinette Kowal’s formula for determining the length of your story gave me my clue. Leslie discovered this formula while doing research for our episode on “Waters of Versailles.” Briefly, the formula multiplies characters, settings, and events by a couple of factors to come up with a likely word count for your finished story.
Adichie’s story today has effectively only two characters, a single setting, and one event: Chika and the woman, in the abandoned store, while the riots outside die down. Very little of the story is literal action. They climb in through the window. They sit down. They talk. Chika leaves, sees a body, and comes back. The woman cleans her wound. They sleep, they wake up, they leave. The end.
That’s why she had so much room for the flash-forwards and the fascinating narrative device that they constitute. She used that extra space to create the real story of Chika’s huge worldview shift, and to deliver some powerful commentary on ethnic and religious clashes in Nigerian society, all while leaving the reader—or at least this reader—feeling satisfied that I understood the beginning, the middle, the end, the genre, the premise, and the controlling idea, and also experienced real emotional impact.
Which, by the way, I think goes something like this:
A privileged young woman must abandon her naive prejudices and gain wisdom when a woman from a lower order of society saves her life during a violent social upheaval.
Anne: Valerie, I know you’re about to completely contradict me here and provide readers and writers whose brains are not at all like mine, and who might not have enjoyed the story, the satisfaction of also being right.
Valerie – Short Stories and Vignettes
I’m taking a little break from Forces of Antagonism this week because (1) I think the Force of Antagonism is fairly obvious here and (2) in my opinion, it’s not the most interesting aspect of “A Private Experience”.
Because I want to understand the medium of the short story better, I’m taking a macro perspective this week. What exactly is a short story and when would an author choose to write one instead of say, writing a vignette, a novelette, a novella or even a novel?
I started my preparation for this episode by reflecting on the short stories we’ve studied so far this semester (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, “The Wolves of Karelia”, “Pilgrims” and “Waters of Versailles”) and wondering why some really hit the mark for me, and others didn’t. (I mean, I’m not that much of a curmudgeon!) Yes, this is literature, and literature is art and art is subjective. So, there’ll always be an element of personal taste to consider. But the beauty of Story Grid and story theory is that it allows us to put our subjective opinions aside and evaluate a work on objective principles. That’s always my goal when I prepare for our episodes.
Earlier this week, it hit me that there’s a difference between a short story and a vignette. One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different. So, while “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is definitely a short story, something like “Pilgrims” is, in my opinion, more of a vignette.
Let’s back up for a minute and look at what a short story is, and what a vignette is, and what the difference between them is.
A short story is well, a story that’s short. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a plot. Like a novel, or novella, or novelette, it’s a complete piece of writing but it’s just shorter.
A vignette is a description of a snapshot in time. It could focus on one particular character or an event, or it could be a flashback or a character’s reflection about something that happened before.
There’s lots of information online if you want more information on the difference between vignettes and short stories. Here’s an interesting article from Masterclass.
I think that “Pilgrims” and “Wolves of Karelia” are more like long vignettes than short stories. So while a vignette is a perfectly valid form of literature, because it wasn’t what I was expecting, I was disappointed.
Or maybe they’re part way between a vignette and a short story. I’d have to go back and do a full analysis of them to really figure it out, and I didn’t have time to do that before today’s recording. But it’s food for thought nonetheless.
By the way, this issue of reader expectations is the same problem writers have with genre. If a reader wants a love story, and they buy a book expecting a love story based on the cover and story summary, but they get an action story, it doesn’t matter how great the action story is (or even how much they love action stories), they’ll be disappointed.
Ok, so what about “A Private Experience”. Is it a short story or a vignette?
I think it falls into the short story category, but one that could very easily be expanded into a full length novel. As Anne just said, I can see a clear beginning, middle and end and all that good stuff. In fact, it reads like an excerpt from a novel; a scene that only makes sense in the context of the larger story which is told to us in brief references to what happened right before the scene’s inciting incident and what will eventually happen after the resolution.
These references make up about a quarter of the story, which is a significant chunk of the word count. They provide important context that enable the reader to understand the significance of the exchange between these two women. They’re from warring ethnic and religious groups, yet in this instance they’re both victims and are willing to help one another.
This is a terrific topic for a story and I think Adichie’s execution is very good — her writing style is excellent, the five commandments are in place and all that good stuff — but there was still something about it that left me wanting, yet I couldn’t figure out what. It’s not that I hate short stories, or that I hate this story. It’s not that I think it doesn’t work.
That is, I think the story is simply too big for the medium.
This feels like an excerpt from a novel and because of that, it needs context. We’re told about previous and subsequent events which robs us of an opportunity to experience them.
What’s more, this particular scene doesn’t feel like the most important part of the larger story. Or perhaps I should say, it isn’t the most compelling part of the larger story. I was far more interested in whether Chika would find her sister. That’s the main question driving this narrative. How will losing her sister change Chika? How will this exchange with the Hausa woman change her? We never really find out.
So, I think the lesson here for writers is to think deeply about the story that you want to write and then select the medium that will allow it to shine.
Of course, what I’m really talking about here is the time leaf on the Story Grid Genre clover. So often, the writers I work with and speak to, spend little, if any, time considering how long their story needs to be. Picking a format that’s too short is a common problem. We cram trilogies into one book (Shawn talked about this with Tim on the flagship podcast), or in the case of A “Private Experience”, we cram a novel into a short story.
Anne: As always, Valerie, you articulate the important differences that we bring to our analysis of story with our individual minds, taste, and experiences. It’s so interesting how applying even the most seemingly objective analytical lens, which Story Grid kind of purports to be, can result in completely opposing views of a work of art, because the eyes looking through that lens are different.
Kim– Indicating Life Values through word choice and situations
I realize I think I say this every week, but I mean it every week: Anne, thank you so much for choosing this story for us to study. You didn’t know at the time you picked it how much we would need it.
At the time of this recording, Washington state, where I live, has cancelled school for six weeks and today is putting a temporary ban on restaurants, bars, entertainment, etc in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
We often talk about how a reader brings their own life experience and worldview to a story, and this impacts the way they read and interpret meaning—and that is precisely the power of a great story. Despite our subjective experience/lens, universal meaning/knowledge are transmitted, even while that meaning/knowledge is being subjectively interpreted.
So this week, I am coming to A Private Experience from a very different lens of subjectivity than I was even last week. And it’s affecting the way I read. Maybe it’s allowing me to better pick up on the life value-indicating language that author used, maybe I reading into things that aren’t there (I don’t really think so in this case, but the subjective lens is strong this week and I’m doing a lot of self-observation to cope.)
This season I’ve been looking at beginnings and how the writer establishes the status quo and life values at stake through conventions, in order to shift them in obligatory moments. This week, I am drawn to specific language the author used to indicate the Worldview life-values at stake across the story, specifically for ignorance/naivete and cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most painful experiences a human can have—it is a living hell. Seeing protagonist’s navigate this experience is the one of the greatest gifts of Worldview stories.
In A Private Experience, we see Chika transform from Naivete Masked as Sophistication (the truth is binary and I know the truth) to Sophistication (I know I don’t know everything but I know the truth is a paradox).
In the opening beat, after Chika and the woman enter the abandoned shop to hide, we see Chika making sense of what she sees and “sizing up” the woman based on what she believes she knows.
The woman sighs and Chika IMAGINES that she is thinking of her necklace, PROBABLY plastic beads threaded on a piece of string. Even without the woman’s strong Hausa accent, Chika CAN TELL she is a Northerner, from the narrowness of her face, the UNFAMILIAR rise of her cheekbones; and that she is Muslim, because of the scarf. It hangs around the woman’s neck now, but it was PROBABLY wound loosely round her face before, covering her ears. A long, flimsy pink and black scarf, with the garish prettiness of cheap things. Chika WONDERS if the woman is looking at her as well, if the woman CAN TELL, from her light complexion and the silver finger rosary her mother insists she wear, that she is Igbo and Christian.
Language that indicates worldview life values / naivete, ignorance, cognitive dissonance
- Chika admits to herself she “knows nothing” about riots.
- The streets where she ran BLINDLY, NOT SURE in which direction Nnedi had run, NOT SURE if the man running beside her was a friend or an enemy, NOT SURE if she should stop and pick up one of the bewildered-looking children separated from their mothers in the rush, NOT EVEN SURE who was who or who was killing whom.
- Chika looks at the threadbare wrapper on the floor; it is PROBABLY one of the two the woman owns.
- Chika WONDERS if the woman even knows what going to university means. And she , too, if she mentioned school only to feed herself the reality she needs now-that Nnedi is not lost in a riot, that Nnedi is safe somewhere, PROBABLY laughing in her easy, mouth-all-open way, probably making one of her political arguments.
Situations that indicate contradictions
- Chika smelled the sweat and fear and she ran, too, across wide streets, into this narrow one, which she feared – felt – was dangerous, UNTIL SHE SAW THE WOMAN.
- She lowers herself and sits, much closer to the woman THAN SHE ORDINARILY WOULD HAVE, so as to rest her body entirely on the wrapper. She smells something on the woman, something harsh and clean like the bar soap their housegirl uses to wash the bed linen.
Universal truth … increased proximity to things we are unfamiliar with shake us from our ignorance/naivete and throw us into cognitive dissonance.
Once Chika and the woman are sitting beside one another on the wrapper on the floor, Chika’s worldview is challenged even more.
Chika WONDERS if that is all the woman thinks of the riots, if that is all she sees them as – evil. She WISHES Nnedi were here. She IMAGINES the cocoa brown of Nnedi’s eyes lighting up, her lips moving quickly, explaining that riots do not happen in a vacuum, that religion and ethnicity are often politicised because the ruler is safe if the hungry ruled are killing one another. THEN CHIKA FEELS A PRICK OF GUILT FOR WONDERING IF THIS WOMAN’S MIND IS LARGE ENOUGH TO GRASP ANY OF THAT.
“In school you are seeing sick people now?” the woman asks.
Chika averts her gaze quickly so that the woman will not see the SURPRISE. “My clinicals? Yes, we started last year. We see patients at the Teaching Hospital.” She does not add that SHE OFTEN FEELS ATTACKS OF UNCERTAINTY, that she slouches at the back of the group of six or seven students, avoiding the senior registrar’s eyes, hoping she will not be asked to examine a patient and give her differential diagnosis.
“I am trader,” the woman says. “I’m selling onions.”
CHIKA LISTENS FOR SARCASM OR REPROACH IN THE TONE, BUT THERE IS NONE. The voice is as steady and as low, a woman simply telling what she does.
“I hope they will not destroy market stalls,” Chika replies; SHE DOES NOT KNOW what else to say.
“Every time when they are rioting, they break market,” the woman says.
Chika WANTS TO ASK the woman how many riots she has witnessed BUT SHE DOES NOT.
There are many more moment of contrast that occur in the story. When the woman cries, it is not like the woman that Chika knows.
The woman starts to cry. She cries quietly, her shoulders heaving up and down, not the kind of loud sobbing that the women Chika knows do, the kind that screams Hold me and comfort me because I cannot deal with this alone. The woman’s crying is private, as though she is carrying out a necessary ritual that involves no one else.
This woman is not who Chika expects her to be. She challenges Chika’s ignorance/naivete and propels her into cognitive dissonance. Even the woman’s appearance does this.
“I wash and pray,” the woman says, her voice louder now, and she smiles for the first time to SHOW EVEN-SIZED TEETH, THE FRONT ONES STAINED BROWN. Her dimples sink into her cheeks, deep enough to swallow half a finger, and UNUSUAL IN A FACE SO LEAN.
We learn that Chika has been in a place of cognitive dissonance even before the story opens with regard to her belief in God.
Chika looks away. She KNOWS the woman is on her knees, facing Mecca, BUT SHE DOES NOT LOOK. It is like the woman’s tears, a private experience, and she WISHES that she could leave the store. Or that she, too, could pray, could believe in a god, see an omniscient presence in the stale air of the store. She cannot remember when her idea of God has NOT BEEN CLOUDY, like the reflection from a steamy bathroom mirror, and she cannot remember ever trying to clean the mirror.
Chika comes to regard the woman with respect and values what she thinks.
The woman says nothing, seats herself back down on the wrapper. Chika watches her for a while, disappointed WITHOUT KNOWING WHY. MAYBE she wants a blessing from the woman, SOMETHING.
These are just some of the words and situations the author used to convey the life values of Chika’s worldview experience as she tries to make sense of what’s happening. She goes from running in fear until she sees the woman, to believing the woman can’t likely understand what she’s saying, to wanting her approval, trusting her judgment, and wanting to keep what she’s learned (through the symbol of the woman’s scarf).
One of the most poignant statements of Chika’s sophistication comes in a flashforward.
Later, Chika will read in the Guardian that “the reactionary Hausa-speaking Muslims in the North have a history of violence against non-Muslims”, and in the middle of her grief, she will stop to remember that she examined the nipples and experienced the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim.
And I think this is what the story is really about. By giving us this smaller moment, that at the time Chika can’t understand how significant it will be to her, but also giving us the context of future events, we can see the significance. In hindsight, this moment will be a comfort to Chika, and a reminder of the truth. I hope that we can look back on our own moments of crisis with hindsight to gain greater wisdom that we just aren’t able to access when we’re in the thick of it.
The irony that this story is about a woman who needs to shelter in place and wants to go out against better judgment is not lost on me this week.
Leslie – Point of View and Narrative Device
I’m focusing on POV and narrative device this season, and I continue to refine my understanding of it. Here’s my quick description: If genre is what your story is about, POV and Narrative Device are how you deliver it to the reader.
POV is the technical element, which tells us whether it’s first or third-person, for example; it also indicates whether the story is written in past or present or future tense. So POV concerns the technical written vantage point from which the story is presented.
You’ll find some overlap between POV and narrative device, but the Narrative Device or the narrative situation give you the content-related aspects of the way you deliver your story to the reader. The narrative device or situation answers the questions, who or what is the source of the story, when and where is that source located in relation to the events and characters of the story, who is the story for, and why is it being told?
POV and Narrative Device provide writers with useful constraints for making content and technical decisions from macro to micro for solid, story-based reasons. With something that impacts every level of your story, you don’t want to guess. I’ve on a quest to understand how POV and Narrative Device work and how to choose the best one for your story. I explore this in my upcoming Story Grid beat on POV as well as my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV.
The bite size episode can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here. If you have questions about POV and Narrative Device, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment here, get in touch through the Guild, or submit your question through my site, Writership.com/POV.
What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise and form?
I’ve been starting my inquiry with the narrative problem presented by the premise because it provides immediate constraints for my analysis, but I often mention the form and what we Story Gridders call the Time genre as well, especially when we look at shorter written works. I’m officially adding that to my inquiry now.
In fact, I suspect I’ll be adding the other leaves of the Story Grid Genre Clover because the more we consider the specific qualities of the story we’re studying or writing, the better we understand the choices writers have made and that we need to make in our stories. If every element doesn’t work in harmony, that is, support the story you want to write, the reader will pick up on it. I mean, don’t you want to know what problems might arise based on your choices? You can’t eliminate all problems, but some can be addressed or even leveraged to improve the story.
Sometimes a writer might aim for a discordant note, to combine elements that work create friction. For example, the adaptation of Jane Eyre that we reviewed presented the story out of chronological order, which meant that we were periodically pulled out of the narrative dream. The filmmaker in that case didn’t want us to disappear into the story too far because I think they wanted to send a particular message that seemed to contradict the cause and effect story presented in the original story. If you want to do something like this, to use elements that create friction in the reader’s experience, I encourage you to make that choice with a specific intention in mind, not by accident.
With that in mind, let’s turn back to the problems presented by the premise and other story elements in “A Private Experience.”
Generally speaking, the premise is a character in a particular setting with a problem.
On the surface, Chika is a young woman in Kano, Nigeria who must find shelter after being separated from her sister during a violent riot. But once I read more deeply, it seemed that the story was about how Chika was trying to make sense of the events after the fact, even though Adichie uses primarily the present tense in the story.
Let’s set that aside for a moment. The immediate setting is a small abandoned store, but outside a riot with extreme violence is happening. To tell this story Adichie needs to find a way to capture what’s happening outside while not letting it overwhelm the narrative.
We have two primary characters who are different in lots of ways, but also similar, and the writer will need to consider which details will make this clear without a lot of exposition and in a short time.
What’s the POV?
On the surface, the narration appears to be what Norman Friedman calls Neutral Omniscience–this is what we typically think of when we say omniscient. A god-like, all-knowing entity reveals the events of the story from outside the story with access to information the character can’t know in the present moment. What’s my rationale? It’s written in present tense, which suggests that we’re following events as they unfold. But future events are revealed that Chika could only imagine while in the little store with the woman. And the specificity of the details makes me doubt that these are imaginings. They don’t feel like anxiety about the future, but actual events.
I can’t shake the feeling that the story is actually written in Selective Omniscience, or what we sometimes call close third, because the words appear to be Chika’s, not those of a neutral narrator.
This is important because whatever the technical qualities of your POV choice, what you want to pay attention to is the effect you intend and which techniques will achieve it. So what effect does this combination of qualities create and does it shed light on the narrative device?
What’s the Narrative Device?
The effect of the narrative to me is of someone trying to make sense of something in the recent past. They are weaving incidents together, but not chronologically or coherently. It’s not chaotic, so it doesn’t appear to be in the immediate aftermath, but one event in the story’s present leads to thoughts about the future and past. The present tense suggests she’s reliving certain events (her time with the woman in the store) in the context of the chaotic events outside in the past or future.
If that’s true, then the narrative device is a series of Chika’s thoughts as she tries to make sense of what happened where she fits in the world that includes the external events. The narration would be for herself, and the conclusion she reaches might be something about how what she has in common with the woman is far more significant than their differences.
This is all pretty speculative on my part, and it’s not a complete analysis. For example, I’m not looking at different forms of narrative distance here which could provide other clues. (The details of this story are worthy of a much deeper study.) Adichie might disagree with my assessment, and you might as well. So what’s the point of this speculation? I’m really using the “implied author” from Seymour Chatman’s paradigm for narrative structure. I’m projecting an implied author based on the content included and techniques used in the story. This helps us consider possibilities for our own stories.
Typical POV choices suggest that all written stories can be separated into three or four different primary categories, but when we look at the wide range of stories within them, it doesn’t seem that useful for making POV choices in your story. If we employ our imagination to consider stories we admire and what the writers might have considered, we can think about our narrative choices in a more comprehensive and I would argue more useful way.
Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers
We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft.
Valerie: The big takeaway for me is the reminder that writers have many storytelling forms to choose from and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. So we’ve really got to think about our stories and about which medium will serve them best. Some stories lend themselves to the screen, others to the stage, or the page. If the page is the best medium, then what length will serve the story best. Time is one of the leaves on the Story Grid Genre Clover and our choice from that leaf requires as much thought as our choices from the other leaves.
Kim: When you know the kind of story you’re trying to tell, and the impact you want to have on your audience, you can bring intention to every layer of your craft–characters, setting, circumstances, moments of change, and word choice.
Leslie: We’re so used to talking about POV as discrete types (first person, third person, omniscient), but those categories don’t help writers very much. It’s way more useful to consider the effect and experience you want to create and the techniques and narrative device that will achieve it. To be fair, it’s more difficult than selecting from three or four basic options, but you have a better chance of successfully delivering on the promise of your original spark of an idea. That’s what I’ll focus on next season.
Anne: I feel like I’ve learned something so crucial from this story and this author: that great depth can be incorporated into a really simple story, if you constrain the total number of elements—characters, locations, and events. There’s not room for complexity in a short story, but if you do it right, there’s plenty of room for depth and important ideas. And though I acknowledge Valerie’s disagreement, I think “A Private Experience” is an excellent one to study for how to do that right.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Monica T. Rodriguez on Twitter. Monica writes:
@StoryGridRT Recently discovered the podcast!? Question: I’m struggling with the Foolscap vs the 3-act structure, with the 1st, Midpoint & 3rd plot points (reading The Writer’s Journey now). Is the Foolscap structure equal to the 3 acts? Where do the plot points fall in the Foolscap? Thanks.
Kim: As someone who came to Story Grid after immersing in other story structure models, I can totally relate to what you’re experiencing Monica. Before I try to split the hairs between plot points and five commandments, I think it’s helpful to remember that there are multiple levels that you can examine a story from, what Shawn would call “resolutions”, and the various tools, Story Grid and otherwise, are different lenses.
The 1st plot point, midpoint, 2nd plot point are one tool and one lens, and the five commandments of the BH/MB/EP are another lens.
The first plot point is about crossing the threshold, when the protagonist accepts the call and goes through a “door of no return”. In terms of progressive complications, this is a moment of irreversibility, which raises the stakes. It exists at the end of the BH, beginning of MB, or between Acts 1 and 2. But which moment is it exactly? Is it one specific commandment? Is it the same commandment in every story?
In the Pixar film Coco, the first plot point is when Miguel steals and strums the guitar, transporting him to the Land of the Dead. When we analyzed this story for the 15 core scenes, we identified this moment as the Resolution of the BH, the result of Miguel’s climactic choice to run away from his family.
Is the first plot point always the Resolution of the BH? I’m not comfortable making the statement. The five commandments themselves are largely subjective interpretations based on what lens you’re looking at the story through. But I am comfortable saying it is likely either the BH-CL, BH-R, or MB-II. It’s less important to get it “exactly” right, and just get it in there.
Also the midpoint is a major shift that raises the stakes in the middle of your middle build where new information is revealed, or additional actions by the antagonist force the protagonist to change, going from passive to active. The midpoint shift is a PC for sure, and can act as the TPPC for the MB, but other times a later moment feels more relevant as the TPPC. Either way, you need a MB shift even if it doesn’t “show up” in your foolscap 15.
The 2nd plot point comes at the end of the MB, beginning of the EP. It is another door of no return that ups the stakes again, and brings about the Ending Payoff. This may be the Resolution of the MB or the II of the EP … regardless, make sure your story is reaching this level of irreversibility as you kickoff your ending.
By embracing both lenses for your story, and not forcing them to always be the same in the way they fit together, you allow yourself to discover what makes sense for your story and still adhere to the structure that a story needs in order to work/be fulfilling for your audience.
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